Healthcare
Industry Insights

Solving the Worldwide Healthcare Workforce Shortage Using Online Education

05/12/21   |  
Colleen Sanders, RN, FNP-BC, VP Healthcare, Keypath Education

The global pandemic has drastically highlighted the gaps in healthcare systems around the world. Among the most serious of those gaps is the shortage of frontline healthcare professionals -- a gap that is growing as the pandemic enters its second year.

And while that workforce shortage was made more apparent by COVID-19, it certainly wasn’t caused by COVID-19. In fact, just before the pandemic, the World Economic Forum was ringing the alarm bells on healthcare worker shortages in its 2020 Global Risk Report. And going back even further, studies have been warning of looming nursing shortages all over the world for almost a decade now.  

For example, a shortage of 123,000 nurses expected by 2030 was highlighted in a Health Workforce Australia report as early as 2014 and again in a Deloitte report in 2018. The UK National Health Service identified 94,000 vacancies in its healthcare workforce. Statistics Canada says there are 112,000 job vacancies in the Canadian healthcare sector today. And in the United States, the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) predicts the shortage of physicians could be as high as 139,000 by 2033, and the US Registered Nurse Workforce Report Card estimates an RN shortage of over 500,000 by 2030, all of which will put huge stress on America’s healthcare system, especially in rural communities.

The solution is far more complex than simply training more nurses. Just as there are fewer nurses in the workforce to take care of patients, there are fewer instructors available to educate students in nursing and other healthcare fields. As well, the time it takes to train a new generation of healthcare workers is considerable, and some of the most staggering shortages exist in rural communities where postsecondary education is not readily accessible.

Nursing Education in High Demand

While instructors are in short supply, applications for degree programs in healthcare-related fields continue to climb. In fact, demand for nurses was so high in 2020, and spaces were so limited that American universities and colleges were forced to reject more than 80,000 nursing applicants according to the 2019-2020 Enrollment and Graduations in Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Nursing Report. Likewise, in Canada, The Ontario Universities Application Centre reported a 72% increase in applications for nursing programs in 2021-22. To help cope, the Ontario government announced that community colleges will now issue four-year Bachelor of Science Nursing degrees.

These statistics point to the complexity of the problem. If demand is too high for the existing capacity of postsecondary institutions, how will the demand be met? How will these programs reach rural communities that have limited access to postsecondary education? And how quickly will people coming into nursing from another career be upskilled? Particularly, when attending nursing school full time on-campus is a challenge?

Early in my career, I had the honour of teaching at Georgetown University in Washington DC. One of my students in the nursing program was switching careers after practicing law for about 25 years -- almost as long as I had been alive! When asked about the drastic career change from the legal profession to the healthcare profession, the student simply responded that they felt they were “called to be a nurse.” The experience of teaching this student, and so many other people whose passion for helping others had changed the course of their lives, has stuck with me to this day. They had given up so much and had encountered so many barriers along their journeys of service. I knew there had to be a better way to accommodate and upskill experienced professionals who were switching careers -- and a better way for educators to make an impact on the healthcare workforce shortage.

Eventually, that question of how to make an impact led me to the Online Program Management (OPM) company Keypath Education, where I now work as VP of Healthcare. Keypath Education brings a global, data-driven perspective to its partner universities and works with them to build capacity through distance learning programs. These programs ensure that students who are tied to specific communities through their work, like healthcare workers, are able to learn and complete their clinical placements in the communities where they live. And that experienced workers -- like the student in my class -- can be upskilled or re-skilled in a way that creates flexibility for the learner while maintaining quality for the institution.

Addressing the Healthcare Workforce Shortage by Upskilling Nurses

When it comes to fixing the global healthcare workforce shortage, OPMs can help universities create purposefully designed online (or blended) education programs. These programs address workforce gaps while digitally amplifying the reach and impact of the limited number of educators available in these program areas.

Targeted programs such as the graduate nursing programs, offered across Australia and the United States, are purpose-built to upskill working nurses into clinical leaders and/or advanced level practitioners. These programs are delivered fully online or require minimal campus residencies; some offered part-time and may recognize prior learning in fulfillment of the degree. An example of this is the Master of Advanced Nursing program in Australia. In this program, learners can choose from 12 different subjects and four majors that have been developed to address the growing Australian health crisis around acute care, chronic and complex care, quality and safety, leadership, and management.

Importantly, nursing students enrolled in university-OPM partnership programs are able to work and study close to home. This is particularly critical for nursing students who live and work in rural communities of large countries like the United States, Australia, and Canada. However, as impactful as the distance learning model for advanced degrees can be, a remote option for entry-level professional nursing is not widely available. For example, there are over 287 Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) programs across the United States, and just five of them offer distance programming.

The Shortage of Healthcare Workers Presents an Opportunity for Universities

The online education model for entry-level and advanced healthcare professionals presents an enormous opportunity for postsecondary institutions to reach students where they are-- whether living in rural communities or working full time and not able to attend a traditional in-person program. Highly specialized programming, like a distance ABSN, will be a significant factor in solving the most pressing workforce shortages currently facing nations around the world.

But it’s more than that. Expanding enrollment beyond the campus footprint provides a university with new ways to connect working healthcare professionals and underserved communities with quality educational opportunities that, in turn, improve the lives of others, thereby fulfilling the fundamental mission of a university. Distance learning is one important way to make a real, positive impact on an issue of profound and immediate importance.

While the COVID-19 pandemic presents a massive global challenge, it also underscores our collective need to address an ongoing, long-term shortage of healthcare workers around the world. Closing the gap on this shortage will enable an entire sector to meet the needs of the people who depend on them.

As the global fight against COVID-19 continues, there has never been a more urgent time to embrace online education as a solution to solving the worldwide healthcare workforce shortage.